(Part 1 is here. Just going to pick up where we left off and keep going.)
When the abolitionists called their bluff, the “biblical” defenders of slavery folded. But even as they did so, they continued to pretend that they held the winning hand. They had the chutzpah to continue presenting themselves as the sole legitimate defenders of the Bible, even as they worked for years to prevent enslaved persons from reading that Bible so as to prevent them from finding there what all sides were sure they would clearly see.
The side of this dispute that presented itself as defending the scriptures was working to suppress the Bible. The side actively working to promote wider access to the Bible and its message was portrayed as, somehow, being anti-Bible. This pattern repeats and endures.
Even today, the self-serving bravado of those pro-slavery Christians’ claim to represent “conservative” true religion is still repeated as though it were accurate and true. Their self-congratulatory attempt to rig the argument by framing themselves as the defenders of the Bible is still repeated as though it represents the reality of this dispute. Even though, when it was put to the test, it was exposed as a lie.
This lie gets reinforced all the time, even in some of the best and most insightful discussions of the centuries of theological, religious and biblical arguments over American slavery. I’ve often recommended Mark Noll’s terrific history The Civil War as Theological Crisis, which focuses on the arguments and disagreements among white Christians over the meaning and interpretation of the Bible as it applied to the largest and most significant matter shaping American history, American politics, and American Christianity.
It’s a great book and it includes many passages where Noll, with great insight, examines the way that pro-slavery Christians deliberately framed the argument so as to portray themselves as the defenders of Real True Christianity battling against the irreligious liberals who dismissed or rejected the authority of the Bible. And yet, despite seeing that and describing it clearly, Noll also repeatedly falls back into reproducing and repeating that framing as though it accurately represented the actual outlines of the dispute. He often winds up reinforcing that framing and their assertion that this was not so much a disagreement over the interpretation of the Bible, but over the authority of the Bible.
This happens even in a book that goes to great lengths to explain how every premise of that framing is misleading. Noll dissects the scandalous mindlessness of the pro-slavery Christians’ assertion that the Bible’s simple, clear and evident meaning could only lead to support for their conclusion.* He laments that their simplistic approach was bolstered by an anti-intellectual demagoguery that portrayed the abolitionists’ more thoughtful reading as too long or too complicated to be legitimate. He sees all of that, describes how it worked and why it was wrong, and then falls back into reinforcing it anyway.
As the “most eloquent Divines … the very lights of the church … shamelessly [give] the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system,” Noll frequently seems to concede the legitimacy of their argument. And he does so without mentioning that it was, in fact, shameless — that the credibility of their assertions was simultaneously undermined and contradicted by their own efforts to prevent enslaved persons from gaining access to the Bible lest they read there something that would threaten to undermine their claims of religious authority and the oppressive injustice they were fighting so hard to preserve.
The description of these “eloquent Divines” there is not from Noll, but from Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest American theologians of the 19th century,** who is disappointingly relegated to a handful of parenthetical pages in Noll’s history. Douglass had little patience for the self-serving, self-righteous framing presented by the defenders of slavery. He rejected it utterly:
This horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity. For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation — a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God.
Noll doesn’t cite that passage from Douglass, but he cites similar rhetoric from William Lloyd Garrison in a way that supports the pro-slavery framing of the battle over the meaning of the Bible, writing:
Garrison’s … willingness to jettison the Bible if the Bible was construed as legitimating slavery was too radical for most of his fellow Americans. In fact, the willingness of Garrison and a few others to favor abolitionism in place of Scripture actually worked to the advantage of those who defended slavery on the basis of Scripture.
Italics original. Nonsense original. Or, actually, utterly unoriginal.
It’s the same nonsense one encounters whenever and wherever the Bible is weaponized for the defense of oppression and injustice. Noll is repeating — and reaffirming — the accusation made by the very same pro-slavery “defenders of the Bible” that he elsewhere critiques so incisively. He is saying what they always say — that opponents of oppression and injustice are somehow “jettisoning the Bible” and coming to “favor justice in place of Scripture.”
It’s the same accusation that gets made, today, against people like Matthew Vines and J.R. Daniel Kirk when they present painstakingly and explicitly biblical arguments for the inclusion and equal dignity of LGBT people. It’s the same accusation that gets made, today, against people like Craig Keener or Mim Haddad or Scot McKnight when they make painstakingly and explicitly biblical arguments for the equality of women. It’s the same accusation that gets made against people like Michelle Higgins or Drew G.I. Hart when they try to remind white Christians that Black Lives Matter.
It’s the same self-refuting nonsense that can watch as a brave woman recites and embodies the words of Psalm 27 and somehow twist what is happening into some kind of attempt to “jettison the Bible” and to deny its authority.
And, as Douglass said, it’s a kind of blasphemy. By portraying every effort to promote greater justice as a rejection of the Bible, it equates “the Bible” with injustice, twisting the throng of religion into “a huge, horrible, repulsive form.”
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* This is dismaying. Seeing this happen even for a brilliant, sharp-eyed scholar like Mark Noll is a reminder of how difficult this idea is to unlearn for any of us who were shaped by the world of American white evangelicalism. It’s like an accent that none of us ever wholly loses. It’s an unreal framing of reality that was so wholly bred into our bones that we find ourselves repeating it out of habit or instinct even long after we’ve realized that it was false. We may have long ago come to realize that the “biblical” defense of injustice was exactly that — a defense of injustice rather than a defense of the authority/integrity/esteem of the Bible — but we’re still liable to sag back into the lazy, misleading framing we so thoroughly absorbed for so many years.
** And one of the greatest American theologians of the 20th century. And, from the looks of things, one of the greatest American theologians of the 21st century.
And this is true despite the fact that, formally speaking, Douglass wasn’t even a theologian.